Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s death stirs memories of onetime democracy hopes
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, imprisoned since the military removed him from office in 2013, died Monday after collapsing in court, putting the nation’s authoritarian-minded government on the defensive over his treatment in custody.
State television reported early Tuesday that the cause of death was a heart attack, and the public prosecutor’s office quickly issued a burial permit, saying forensics were complete. Morsi’s relatives and human rights advocates had long raised serious concerns about his deteriorating health and harsh conditions behind bars.
Officials had said in an earlier statement that Morsi, 67, was taken to a hospital after his collapse as a session of his espionage trial was being adjourned, and pronounced dead there.
The country’s first democratically elected president and a leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement, the California-educated Morsi lasted only a year in office before his defense minister, Abdel Fattah Sisi, moved to wrest power from him. Sisi has been president ever since.
Egyptian media said the Interior Ministry ordered a state of the highest security alert. There was no immediate sign of unrest in a country that keeps a tight lid on dissent.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the epicenter of the Arab Spring protests that set in motion events that led to Morsi’s presidency — the mood was calm, with little obvious sign of extra police vigilance, although some street cafes were closed. On a nearby bridge over the Nile, families were enjoying a night out, with vendors selling balloons and snacks.
Morsi’s death, which followed years of reports of health problems in prison, was a dramatic new inflection point in Egypt’s tumultuous journey from the massive Arab Spring protests of 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak, a dictator of decades’ standing, and the country’s subsequent slide into a new era of repression under Sisi.
The government’s 2013 crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, which left hundreds dead and virtually all the movement’s major leaders jailed or in exile, fractured Egyptian society.
Although Morsi’s brief rule fell far short of the hopes raised by the Arab Spring protests, the toppling of Mubarak and the election that brought Morsi to power — the country’s first vote that was generally considered to have been free and fair — had seemed to set Egypt on a more democratic path.
Although Morsi was a deeply unpopular president, his rule marked by a clumsily authoritarian style of governance, the Brotherhood, while Islamist in nature, was a 90-year-old mainstream movement that had been allowed relative freedom under Mubarak and was enmeshed in many major institutions.
All that changed with Morsi’s ouster. The Brotherhood was branded a terrorist group, and Sisi presided over a dismantling of many basic freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism. At the same time, more radical Islamist groups emerged, waging an armed battle against Egypt’s security forces.
Morsi’s six-year imprisonment, which began immediately upon his ouster, was punctuated by dozens of legal proceedings on an array of charges. At one point he was sentenced to death, but that was overturned.
In early courtroom appearances, he defiantly maintained that he was the country’s legitimate president. After he yelled angrily at judges, the authorities soundproofed the cage-like dock in which the accused are customarily held.
Morsi’s family and human rights groups denounced his treatment in prison, saying he had been deprived of needed healthcare and given only rare family visits. The Brotherhood’s exiled leaders openly blamed Sisi’s government for his abrupt demise.
“It’s not a regular death,” Mohamed Soudan, a Britain-based senior member of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said Monday. “This is a murder, 100%.”
Perhaps reflecting sensitivities about the circumstances of Morsi’s death, the initial state television announcement was not read by a news anchor, but consisted only of an image of a brief statement.
It said that Morsi “died today in the courtroom after he asked to speak, and was allowed to speak,” and that after the session was adjourned, he passed out and subsequently died.
Morsi’s death drew swift and inevitable attention to the country’s harsh jailhouse conditions and the plight of its many political prisoners, estimated by rights groups to number more than 40,000.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, tweeted that the former president dying in custody was “entirely predictable.”
Amy Hawthorne, research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said it was unknown whether the death was preventable, but she added: “What is known is that Morsi suffered from chronic diabetes and was repeatedly denied medical treatment, and was detained in inhumane conditions.”
Amnesty International, in a statement, called for a full investigation of Morsi’s treatment in prison.
The conditions of Morsi’s imprisonment were also the subject of repeated complaints from his family. His youngest son, Abdullah Morsi, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last year that his father was in solitary confinement and that medical conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes were going untreated.
Another son, Ahmed Mohamed Morsi, posted on Facebook about the death. “Dad, we will meet again with God,” he wrote.
Mohamed Morsi was born in 1951 in a sleepy village in Egypt’s Nile Delta. He came to the capital to study engineering at Cairo University, then moved to the United States for graduate school at USC. Before beginning his political career in 2000 with his election to Egypt’s parliament, he lived the life of an academic, with teaching stints at Cal State Northridge and later at an Egyptian university.
In Egypt’s landmark 2012 election, Morsi wasn’t the Brotherhood’s first choice to stand as a presidential candidate. But another leader’s plans fell through, and Morsi ended up not only as candidate but also as a dark-horse winner. His government, however, was inept and heavy-handed, and by the summer of 2013, there were massive street protests against him.
The army stepped in to remove him in what Morsi denounced as a coup.
That designation was never accepted by the Obama administration, in part because it would have triggered automatic aid cuts for Egypt, an important regional strategic partner of the U.S. Human rights concerns voiced by Washington amid the sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood became much more muted after President Trump took office in 2017.
Trump has twice welcomed Sisi in the Oval Office, most recently in April. Ahead of the visit, a bipartisan congressional group sought to call attention to the Egyptian leader’s human rights record and efforts to change the constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2034.
Trump said at the time he did not know about the parliamentary move in Egypt to drastically extend Sisi’s tenure.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” he told reporters. “I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job ... great president.”
The death Monday highlighted still-simmering regional tensions over Morsi’s removal from office and the crackdown on the Brotherhood. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of his staunchest supporters, likened the death to an execution.
“I ask God for mercy for Morsi, our brother, our martyr,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey. He called the 2013 government takeover a coup and accused the West of remaining silent on the jailing and execution of political prisoners.
Thousands of Egyptians who feared arrest for ties to the Muslim Brotherhood fled the country after 2013, settling in Turkey. The Ankara government for a time cut diplomatic relations with Cairo, saying the legitimate president was still Morsi.
In Turkey, some members of Morsi’s former Cabinet and Brotherhood-affiliated lawmakers set up a self-declared parliament in exile, and several television channels still broadcast from Istanbul expressing support for the movement.
Special correspondent Islam reported from Cairo and Times staff writer King from Washington. Special correspondent Umar Farooq in Istanbul contributed to this report.
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